It’s a messy world out here. People in positions of great wealth and authority are acting like dangerous and dangerously terrible infants. It’s getting more and more difficult to get behind the idea of any kind of authority at all. And it’s kind of difficult to accept stories about ancient deities these days. This is the modern world. Even our superheroes are mortal. J.J. Gatesman and A Fool’s Enigma Productions have found a really interesting approach to an ancient story of gods and goddesses with their retelling of the myth of Psyche and Eros.
A teaser preview of Fool’s Enigma’s The Beauty of Psyche closed-out the Todd Wehr Theater for the Milwaukee Fringe Festival this past weekend. It looks really, really promising. Author/director J.J. Gatesman has streamlined the story into something simple and powerful: a love story. Abigail Stein plays Psyche...a charmingly clever intellect who has been taken prisoner by Eros...played here by Josh Decker. Stein’s beauty in the role is very down-to-earth. It’s the poetry of pragmatism that we see radiating from her...Stein has a delightful humanity in the role. Josh Decker’s end of the romance has him playing an Eros who is absolutely crippled by his own divinity. He’s completely out of touch with the mortal world...and maybe feeling love for Psyche has caused him to become curious about the whole mortality thing. It’s as frustrating for him as it is for her. Granted...it IS a love story that starts with a kidnapping, but in a way they are both captives of very different kinds.
We first see Eros only in silhouette. It’s a very simple device: a single white sheet has his silhouette cast against it by a powerful light from behind. We first see his mother Aphrodite cast against it as well. It’s really remarkable how effective that is. Big-budget films can render amazing figures in very impressive CGI, but a simple silhouette projected against a white sheet in the intimacy of a studio theatre has a capacity for mystery that simply isn’t there in the dizzying detail of high-definition video in a multiplex. Compared to a sea of pixels, shadows against a single sheet can feel almost transcendentally organic. It’s so poetic: Divinity is a shadow on white linen.
Not every god we run into in Gatesman’s staging is totally aloof. I adored Kellie Wambold’s intoxicatingly playful interpretation of the god Pan. She introduces the show with a greeting and opening narration in a bewildered rush of words. She’s real friendly. She’ll shake your hand and everything...tumbling across the stage in a childlike divinity that prefers to be closer to people. Wambold adds emotional warmth that serves as a pleasant path into a show that jumps right into the drama of love without much of any further introduction. Wambold’s warmth guides us to the right emotional place to embrace a love story between god and mortal.
It’s not easy. Psyche can see Eros only in silhouette. He never tells her his name. Eventually Psyche DOES catch a glimpse of the face of Eros . . . and then things shift. Now we can see Eros in flesh, blood and three dimensions. He’s a god and he’s...a person just like anyone else (as all divinity is a reflection of humanity.) The problem is that he’s not mortal...so there’s that distance.
Pulling the veil from the gods we are also able to see Aphrodite...and she is beautiful as played by Audrey Thompson-Wallace. . . but we see her as a divinely haughty entity who is weighted down by the ugliness of mortal pettiness. It’s not a depiction of the goddess that I’m particularly fond of, but it works within the structure of the story and Thompson-Wallace sells it with an emotional chill approaching absolute zero, so it’s a very stylish rendering.
It’s my understanding that in the original story, Psyche possessed beauty that caused people to worship and make offerings to her and NOT Aphrodite. Naturally she was a bit upset about this. Without a vivid representation of this onstage, the jealousy that drives the character in Gatesman’s adaptation seems to compromise the character’s divinity. The goddess of beauty should not bear the ugliness of petty jealousy. It feels weird. Be this as it may, Gatesman’s streamlined script feels very primal and Aphrodite’s pettiness is only visible once the veil has fallen from divinity and we see her and Eros in three dimensions.
There’s real poetry in this. When the veil falls from the shadow of divinity, we see everyone for who they truly are. It’s a really clever effect. Pan’s divinity is drawn from wild impetuousness so she’s going to live on our side of the veil, but Eros and Aphrodite can only be truly seen once the veil falls.
There's also an original score for the show written by Amanda J Hull and Cole Heinrich. In keeping with the streamlined nature of the rest of the show it is simple, primal accompaniment to an engaging romance.
The preview that ended the Fringe Fest for Todd Wehr was only a portion of a show which will be staged in a much cozier space. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to see the full show in the UC.
J.J. Gatesman’s The Beauty of Psyche gets a full staging next week at the Arcade Theatre in the Underground Collaborative. The show runs Sep. 6 - 15. For more information on this and more coming to the UC, visit the Underground Collaborative online.